Music interview – Billy Bragg: ‘Seeing The Clash convinced me there was something to punk’

Billy Bragg will be appearing at Long Division festival in Wakefield. Picture: Murdo McLeod
Billy Bragg will be appearing at Long Division festival in Wakefield. Picture: Murdo McLeod
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Fans of Billy Bragg will have two opportunities to see the ‘Bard of Barking’ at the revived Long Division festival in Wakefield.

The 60-year-old singer-songwriter and political activist will not only perform a concert in Wakefield Cathedral on Saturday; tomorrow he’ll be at Wakefield Town Hall with Laura Snapes, The Guardian’s deputy music editor who has also written for the likes of Pitchfork, Mojo and Q, and Chris Madden, the Leeds psychotherapist and founder of Chinwag, a series of conversations with artists, writers and musicians.

The event, called Write Place, Write Time, is in aid of the charity MAP which seeks to help young people at risk of exclusion from mainstream education.

Bragg says his process of songwriting hasn’t changed significantly over the last 40 years. “It just works its way out in different ways now,” he says. “In the old days I used to have to sing everything into a big cassette recorder; now I do it on my phone while I’m wandering round.

“I don’t have to be anywhere specifically with an instrument. I don’t have to write a song with a tune in my head; I can capture it immediately on my phone and when I’m needing some ideas to make a new record I listen back to them and reconnect with them.”

He says he’s rarely been one to work to a strict routine. “I hate doing my homework,” he says. “One of the things that was a really good encouragement to write a song was getting a John Peel session. I can remember having a conversation with Johnny Marr about that, saying ‘I’ve got a Peel session, I’ve got to write two new songs, you can’t play old songs on a Peel session’. That was certainly true of me, whenever I did one if I didn’t have a couple of songs knocking around I would write a couple of songs specifically. I can remember doing that the night before, thinking to myself, ‘Come on, there’s got be something in here’ and digging deep to find it.

Billy Bragg. Picture: James Millar

Billy Bragg. Picture: James Millar

“But I find more often than not when I’m making a record that I focus in on songwriting and I tend to write more songs in that process rather than day to day, whereas I used to connect with it more regularly.”

Bragg began writing poetry when he was 11 years old. “I didn’t learn to play guitar until I was 16 but I’d written a lot of songs before then. At 13, 14, 15 I was writing songs and keeping the tunes in my head.”

He quickly realised he wanted to be a full-time songwriter around the same time. “I only got one O-level, English Language grade A, so I figured that’s the singer-songwriter’s O-level,” he quips. “When I applied for the job that was one of the kickers for me – the fact that you only needed that one O-level, and also the fact that you didn’t need to do mornings, which is something that I really like, so that’s why I put my name down for singer-songwriter rock star.”

Seeing The Clash on their White Riot tour in 1977 changed a lot for the then 19-year-old Bragg. “It changed the width of my trouser bottoms, it changed the length of my hair, it changed the fabric of my jacket and I suppose it convinced me that there was something to punk after all. At the time we’d been listening to The Jam and they had a classic early 60s aesthetic but there was something about punk that I thought was a bit false. Actually seeing The Clash live I realised that a lot of the things I really liked about the Stones and The Who and The Faces were actually deep inside The Clash as well so it kind of got me connected.”

Words alone probably cannot save us, really; there needs to be actions. So you’ve got to get people to vote, to march, to write, to lobby and all of those other things as well.

Billy Bragg

Bragg’s first band, Riff Raff, were influenced by both punk and pub rock. They briefly reformed recently for a gig on Mersea Island, off the south coast of Essex. “It went brilliantly, it was really good fun,” he enthuses. “It was the 60th birthday of our original keyboard player Stephen Rice who now lives on a houseboat on Mersea. Wiggy [Bragg’s long-time friend Pete Wigg], bless him, organised with Rice’s girlfriend’s Anna that they would have a secret party for him and we would be part of the surprise. We were all there ready to play and had a great time.”

Last year Bragg’s second book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, was published by Faber & Faber. He says the likes of Lonnie Donegan were people he only came to appreciate later in life. “Donegan wasn’t really part of my musical palette. It was really the story of skiffle, the context of skiffle, the more I learnt about it, it seemed to be similar to my experience of punk rock, I figured there was something interesting going on here and that’s what really got my attention.”

He sees a direct relationship between skiffle and punk “on a number of levels”.

“It’s a DIY music, skiffle; it’s a rejection of what’s in the charts – in skiffle’s case Tin Pan Alley, all really written songs, all beautifully produced. It’s very much a way of a generation declaring their difference to the generation that went before them – in the case of skiffle, it’s our first teenagers. The thing that defines that first generation of kids is playing the guitar, that was something that their parents never did, so I think it has a lot of similarities [with punk].

Billy Bragg. Picture: Pete Dunwell

Billy Bragg. Picture: Pete Dunwell

“The last one is that the first wave of British music that didn’t involve people that played in skiffle bands was punk. Right up until Dr Feelgood and Mott the Hoople people who played in skiffle bands were still breaking through.”

Bragg also released a mini-album last year called Bridges Not Walls. With so many things happening in the political world over the last two or three years, he says he felt compelled to address some of the issues in song. “If only to make sense of them,” he says. “That’s all I would do with the songs is look at the dots that everyone can see and try to join them in a way that makes sense. That’s as good a reason for me to write a song, and obviously there’s a lot of that about at the moment.”

Last month Bragg also spoke to the Bank of England. He says he was pleased they invited him. “It’s always good to talk to people outside your own little bubble. A lot of us now, particularly with the way social media works, we only talk to people who agree with us. They wanted to hear from someone outside of their circle and it was also a good challenge for me to throw some ideas out for people beyond my group.”

These days he finds the best way to effect change in society is to speak truth to power. “It’s as good a way as any,” he says. “It’s whether you can connect on that. How do you turn those words into actions? Words alone probably cannot save us, really; there needs to be actions. So you’ve got to get people to vote, to march, to write, to lobby and all of those other things as well, but the beginning of that is an argument and obviously music or writing books or giving talks is as good a way of getting those ideas out there as any.”

In his speech, Bragg said he found people were more inclined to listen when he talked about wanting a compassionate society rather than a socialist one. He thinks the whole nature of political discourse has changed in recent years.

“When you live in a post-ideological society like we do, compared to, say, the 1980s, the language of Marxism doesn’t really resonate with people any more,” he says. “So you’ve got to find other ways of trying to articulate what you believe in. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing; I think that’s a good thing because it gives us a chance to step out of the shadow of totalitarianism that has become part of the baggage of left-wing ideology. Having the opportunity to put that in perspective and get on and make politics for the 21st century I find that is a really interesting challenge.”

Billy Bragg will be talking at Wakefield Town Hall on Friday June 1 and performing at Long Division festival on Saturday June 2. For ticket details visit longdivisionfestival.co.uk